The Isles of Scilly, Lost Peaks of Lyonesse?
By Pollyanna Jones
Celtic Guide, Vol. 3:1 (2014)
Introduction: Twenty-eight miles off the coast of Cornwall, the Scilly Isles rise above the waves of the Atlantic. Lying southwest from the tip of Land’s End, they are counted as part of the Duchy of Cornwall, one of the Celtic realms of Britain. The isles are steeped in history, having been inhabited since the Stone Age. Myth tells of a lost kingdom beneath the waves off Cornwall’s coast; could the Scilly Isles be the remains of the legendary kingdom of Lyonesse?
The Scilly Isles consist of around 140 islands, including five larger ones which are inhabited; St Mary’s Tresco, St Agnes, Bryher, and St Martin’s. The islands benefit from a mild climate with palms and tropical plants featuring in many gardens. From time to time though, the islands suffer from great Atlantic gales. However these same sea winds mean that it is rare for frost and snow to appear, and this makes it possible for the islanders to grow crops that would be sown much later in the year on the mainland. The islands are famed for their wildlife and are a haven for birdwatchers, as well as being one of the last places in Europe to see an elm forest after Dutch Elm disease caused mass destruction of this tree in the 1970s on the mainland and on the continent. The islands can be reached by ferry in a two hour crossing from Penzance on mainland Cornwall.
But what of Lyonesse? Lord Tennyson famously wrote about this mysterious land in his Arthurian epic, “Idylls of the King”, describing the land of Lyonesse as the site of Arthur’s final battle with his rival Mordred;
“Then rose the King and moved his host by night
And ever pushed Sir Mordred, league by league,
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse–
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.”